CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM was the prevailing mood at the recent annual conference of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers in Edinburgh (SAMW).
The news that beef exports are to resume next month was a cause for celebration, but the newly elected SAMW president Allan Jess warned his members that many new challenges now threatened their livelihoods.
"While this is undoubtedly a time of great promise, it's also important to appreciate how much the European market has changed during our 10-year exile. If anyone thinks it's now a case of stepping back onto the EU roundabout at the point we stopped off, then think again," said Jess.
Jess also took a swipe at comments by Ross Finnie, Scottish Executive rural development minister, and suggested his forecast that exports of Scotch beef could reach £200m fairly quickly was wide of the mark.
"The real starting point for sustained export growth lies on the farm rather in the meat plant," said Jess. "We need a strong and pro? table Scottish suckler herd, delivering reliable supplies of quality beef, if we are to properly develop the trade. This will require commitment from producers in keeping with the efforts which our members are already showing in preparations for future exports."
Jess was also angered by recent actions at UNISON and the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS). He said the recent strike action by UNISON meat inspection members took many Scottish businesses to the brink of collapse.
"The fact that we all breathed a sigh of relief when the threat of further action was called off overshad-owed the point that the strike still cost us an obscene amount of money. We survived this time - but at what cost?"
The strike should never have been an issue for the industry, said Jess. "It shouldn't have become our battleground. It was like being taken hostage with no ability to pay the ransom," he said.
This was also not the ?rst time meat producers had been put into this position, added Jess. Less than a year ago many plants committed to highly expensive over-time operations to avoid the risk of being short of meat. "It may have happened before, but it most de?nitely must not be allowed to happen again," he said.
Jess was also highly critical of the MHS monopoly and called for it to be dismantled. He said SAMW was seeking a meeting to discuss this demand as a matter of urgency. "We have an open mind on where we go from here, but we remain totally opposed to the present structure. This was definitely one strike too far," he insisted.